Legislative study group to enter school budget fray

The Beaufort County Legislative Delegation's study committee was formed at the request of Shell Point Elementary School parents who oppose a proposal to shutter the school. The closure is among several plans the school board is considering to combat an anticipated $4 million shortfall in a $175 million operating budget.

Lisa Kindwall, parent and chairwoman of the Shell Point Elementary School Improvement Council, said school board members have blamed County Council for their financial woes. Some also have chastised parents for failing to encourage council members to support a property tax increase that would have generated an additional $2.3 million for schools.

County Council rejected the school district's request last summer to raise taxes on non-resident homes and commercial and personal properties by about 2 percent to fund the operating budget for the current school year. The school board cannot levy taxes and must submit a budget each year to County Council, which approves it and sets a tax rate.

The procedure often leads to budget battles.

Kindwall said that because school board and council members are blaming each other, parents aren't sure what caused the shortfall that could result in their school closing.

They believe they are caught in the middle of a feud and want an independent inquiry into the process.

"We want a clear understanding of the flow of money from the taxpayers to the school board to the schools," Kindwall said. "Is the system broken? Is something wrong? If the process is broken, we're going to ask for oversight until it gets fixed."

Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort, is heading the committee that will look into parents' concerns. She said the review will begin Thursday with presentations from the school board and County Council and include an opportunity for public comment.

Erickson said public interest and Thursday's discussion will determine the study committee's next step, and she has no preconceptions.

She said the committee might decide the current budget process is acceptable or identify ways to improve it. Council and the school board might be able to work through issues on their own, or they might want help from the Legislative Delegation, she said.